For the love of a good mystery: Boca Grande Sleuths

January 29, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY SUSAN HANAFEE – A body. Clues. Even a red herring or two. All these elements of a mystery are what bring together participants in what is believed to be Boca Grande’s oldest book club – the Sleuths.

The group, which meets monthly December through April, has been around for more than 25 years. Participants have come and gone, but the love of a good mystery lingers among the island’s readers.

“People like mysteries because they bring order to chaos,” said Karen Zarse, who along with her neighbor, Stephanie Williams, took over leadership of the Sleuths this past year. “There is also the opportunity to make guesses and solve a puzzle. Everybody likes that.”

Meetings have been limited to 12 attendees this season and pre-registration at the Friends of the Community Center office is a necessity because of the virus. But the enthusiasm of the participants has not been dampened by these restrictions or the masks they wear to meetings.

In December, Karen got the group involved in a spirited game of “hangman” to help in the discussion of “The Body on the Train” by Frances Brody. In a previous year, she had them play Jeopardy to bring to light clues in a mystery. One presenter came in costume for her review of “A Lesson in Secrets” by Jacqueline Winspear, set in the 1920s. Cookies and treats will be served for April’s selections, “Dying for Chocolate” and “The Cereal Murders.” Those books, by Diane Mott Davidson, feature Goldy the caterer as the detective.

Sleuths began in the mid-1990s when the late Rosemary Bowler decided to offer a lectures series on mystery stories at the Boca Grande Community Center.

“It was so interesting we asked her to do it for another season,” said Jean Meanwell, one of the original Sleuth members who now lives in Sarasota. “When she finished the second year and we requested a third, she said ‘not unless I get help.’”

Book signed by Walker.

Jean agreed to assist with the books as did Pat Lombard and John Subak, who encouraged the group to discuss the mystery instead of having the Sleuths be a lecture format.

Occasionally, the Community Center has shown movies of the mysteries being reviewed and authors have appeared to discuss their books.

But the biggest coup, says Jean, was getting former journalist Martin Walker to come to Boca Grande for the first of many visits in 2015. Walker is the author of the popular “Bruno” detective series set in the Périgord region of Southern France where the writer lives with his wife, Julia.

It was Rosemary who had an “aha” moment when she learned that Walker would be speaking in Sarasota. “We were planning to discuss one of the Bruno books when we learned he would be there to talk about foreign affairs. We contacted him and he said he would love to come to Boca Grande while he was in Florida,” Jean recalls.

Marta Howell, executive director of the Friends of Boca Grande, agreed to make the arrangements for the author and to set up a hasty event in which Walker would share his global perspective with interested Boca Grande residents.

“We thought no one would come, and it turned out the place was a sell-out,” Jean says. “He has been returning every year to Boca Grande to big crowds. Everyone loves him.” During his visit, the Sleuths host a private cocktail party for the author who shares a preview of his latest Bruno book.

The trip by Walker to Boca Grande led to an annual Friends outing to France. Karen Zarse and Stephanie Williams were in the first group that traveled to Walker’s home. “There must have been 30 of us sitting around a big L-shaped table. He was holding court and his wife was fixing lunch. One of his friends showed up and talked about the resistance. It was amazing,” Stephanie recalled.

Selection of the Sleuth books for the next season are made in April. As has always been the case, Karen and Stephanie welcome suggestions while searching for books that are considered good literature, are well-written and have “something extra.”

“It’s difficult to discuss a book that only has characters, clues and red herrings,” Karen said, “so we look for material that will make it more presentable – a mystery set in a historical period where there was a lot going on, for example.”

In February, Sleuths will focus on the book “The Lie of the Land” by Amanda Craig. Not your traditional whodunit, it is more a commentary on social issues and life, says Stephanie. She will be presenting the book on Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 2 p.m. in the Houghton Room or Pavilion, depending on the weather.

Martin Walker also will be returning to Boca Grande this year but in a virtual presentation on Tuesday, Feb. 2. Tickets are $35 through the Friends’ office.